REVIEW: LOVING LE CORBUSIER

Yvonne Gallis

Loving Le Corbusier by Colin Bisset tells the story of Yvonne Gallis, a working class girl from Monaco, who came to Paris in 1918 at the age of twenty-six, looking for adventure and romance. Working at the salon, Jove, known for dressing the higher ranks of the ‘oldest profession’, she caught the eye of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, later to be known as Le Corbusier, the world famous architect.

This book, told from her point of view, traces the course of their relationship from the early, happy days in the Rue Jacob in St Germain, through to the end of her life in 1957. It is not simply the story of an archetypal ‘odd couple’ but also a beautiful depiction of France during a war-torn part of its history.

At the core of the book lies the mystery of human attraction. Which one of us hasn’t looked at a couple we know and wondered what on earth they see in each other and why they stay together?  Down to earth and not particularly interested in art or ‘Ed’s’ (as he was called in his family) buildings or books, Yvonne was an unsophisticated working-class girl, who managed to capture the heart of a rich and sophisticated man. And what did Ed see in her? Maybe a woman who  would accept that he did not want children, (“my career will always have to come first … I’ll be away so much researching and building.”), a woman who would tolerate his extremely long absences and  a woman who would endure him doing pretty much exactly as he pleased – an affair with Josephine Baker is hinted at and one presumes there were others. He must also have been struck by her beauty and her spirit. At one point Le Corbusier rather chillingly comments:

“We are influenced by every object around us so it’s vital to make sure that we live with only beautiful things that function properly because only those items will bring us happiness.”

Yvonne however, although certainly beautiful, is a human being with human needs and eventually she does start to ‘malfunction’. First she is removed from Rue Jacob, which she adores, to an apartment in one of  Le Corbusier’s buildings out in Porte Molitor in Boulogne-Billancourt. Then as war breaks out he parks her in Vézelay, while trying to get work with the Vichy government and travelling to Algeria. After the war is over, Le Corbusier stays away longer and longer, travelling to amongst other places, South America, the United States and India and the wire-haired schnauzer, Pinceau, although much loved, is no substitute for his presence. She misses her husband and turns to the bottle for comfort. Finally, he hires a man servant, Luan, to look after her and try to control her drinking during his absences. Arguments increase, plates are thrown but they stay together.

One of the clues as to why Yvonne accepts her situation is perhaps provided by two revealing scenes with their respective mothers, a fairly ghastly pair. When Yvonne finally gets to meet Ed’s snobby, chilly mother, Madame Jeanneret says:

“Edouard is very taken with you and of course you are a very lucky girl to have met a man like him.”

Later, when she takes Ed to meet her parents in Monaco, her own mother’s vicious disapproval and criticism of her, everyone and everything makes Yvonne’s sick to her stomach. In fact in the context of her family it seems amazing that she has emerged with her joie de vivre in tact and it makes her attachment to Le Corbusier very understandable. At least she knows that she is loved and she is materially looked after.

There is a lot of gentle humour here as well. When Ed shows her a sexually explicit sketch of a woman, she asks him why he’s been out buying pornography. On being told he’s been given the sketch by Picasso who “had heard he was in love with a voluptuous woman and he thought he’d appreciate it,” she sighs and says “Well, he’s really very famous these days so I suppose we can at least sell it.” Visiting the new apartment for the first time, she is bewildered by the bidet, which is out in the bedroom next to her dressing table and not particularly taken by a bed which has metal legs a meter high. Le Corbusier may be a visionary and ‘a god’ to some people but he never manages to sort out the leaking roof of the house he built for his parents.

In the end I was left wondering if Yvonne wouldn’t have been happier if she’d never met him and instead married a working class Parisian boy and had the large family she craved. At least then she wouldn’t have had to have a marble dining room table that was designed with the idea of a mortuary slab in mind. When, towards the end of her life, he builds her “a palace by the sea” in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, it is a tiny shed with a narrow bed, the head of which is close to the toilet bowl.

You don’t have to be interested in Le Corbusier, architecture or the history of France  to enjoy this beautifully written book, although if you are you’ll find a great deal to savour; Loving Le Corbusier is for anyone who has ever wondered about love and the strange workings of the human heart. At the end I was left thinking that if there is a moral to be drawn from the book it is perhaps that, if a man claims he is a visionary, it might be a good idea to give him as wide a berth as possible. However, I may be influenced by an inability to forgive Le Corbusier for what he did to Pinceau. No, I’m not going to tell you. Read the book to find out!

Below is the link to Colin’s website which has  lots of fantastic photos and writing about Le Corbusier’s buildings.

http://www.colinbisset.com

Here’s the amazon link for the book:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01FE4FNCQ/

And here is Colin on twitter:

LUCK BRINGER

Last year one of my favourite books was The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebank. I was surprised. It’s not that I’ve got anything against sheep, it’s just that before reading it I never would have thought I would become so fascinated by sheep and shepherds. The fact that I did is testament to the quality of James’s writing.

I was thinking about that book reading Luck Bringer by Nick Brown and I was thinking who knew I could become this interested in triremes and hoplites? But with writing this good why wouldn’t I?

“The smell of a trireme hits you, a mixture of sweat, urine, damp wood and salt. In rough weather this is augmented by vomit, and in battle by the effect of looseness of bowels as fear grips the heart.”

Luck Bringer is the story of Mandrocles, a teenage boy, who is handed over to the Greek renegade general, Miltiades, by his father to get him out of a bit of trouble he’s got into at home. In this case definitely a jump from frying pan to fire. The Persian army is on the prowl and Miltiades ends up fleeing to Athens, where he is viewed with suspicion both by the aristocrats, (the Alkmaionidai), and the demos. The boy gets his nickname “The Luck Bringer” because early on he deflects a blow intended for Miltiades and the device is a clever one because, as the bringer of luck, he becomes a talisman never allowed to stray too far from the general’s side and is therefore an observer of the politics, trickery and villainy which swirl around his master.

One of my favourite scenes is when a play “The Sack of Miletos” is  being performed in Athens:

“The bloody slaughter scars our soil

Our young dead now, thrown from walls

Maidens ravaged, crones lamenting

Youths gelded in the blood pit …”

The performance causes a riot because the sack has taken place relatively recently and the populace is frightened that this is exactly what will happen to Athens soon at the hands of the Persians.

Characters you may have heard of (Themistocles, Aeschylus, Pythagoras) either appear or are referenced. Here’s an entertaining description of Pythagoras:

“I tend to think of him as a potentially decent military engineer gone astray. His notions of the soul and eating beans, his long windedness and lack of understanding of the affairs of men may have won him a reputation for wisdom … but to me he was a potentially good craftsman who became crazed.”

There are also some funny and scathing comments about the Spartans, who failed to turn up and help the Athenians at The Battle of Marathon, which is the climax of the book. This was the battle in which a ragtag army of 10,000 Athenian hoplites beat a professional army of 20,000 Persians.

“And where were the Spartans, the showy, heel dragging buggers then, when the whole world held its breath as the Persian Empire turned its full might on a small city?”

“Everything that’s good or makes sense about life is inverted in Sparta. A place that chooses a regime that keeps thousands down so that a small group can waste the richness of the land in this type of posturing vanity.”

Reading this book reminded me how much I enjoyed fiction set in the classical age and how little of it I have read since I devoured Mary Renault, Rosemary Sutcliffe and Robert Graves in my teens. At the beginning I became slightly confused by the politics but that ironed itself out soon enough.I loved the descriptions of the triremes and what it was like to be in one when it rammed another ship. The moment Mandrocles puts on his heavy helmet and his world narrows to the eye slits will stay with me for a long time. If you want to know what it was like to fight at the Battle of Marathon my guess is this is as close as you’ll get.  Luck Bringer is an example of a vivid imagination fertilizing the seeds of detailed historical research. A great read. And I do love that cover. Below is the link to Nick’s website.

http://www.nickbrownbooks.com

BOOKS REVIEWS: THE VEGETARIAN, RING ROADS AND THE NIGHT WATCH

IMG_1261

The Vegetarian by Han Kang.

First up The Vegetarian by South Korean writer Han Kang. The structure is a triptych of stories. The first one is written from the point of view of the husband of the woman who becomes the vegetarian. The second from the point of view of her brother-in-law, an artist who becomes obsessed with her, and the final one from the perspective of her sister. On the face of it this is a book about a woman described by her husband as ‘unremarkable in every way’ who decides to give up meat, something which is highly unorthodox in South Korean culture. The consequences of this decision play out in startlingly violent, erotic and destructive ways. The silence or inability of the woman to really explain what she is doing lies at the heart of this mysterious and challenging book. It is clear that she is protesting but the reader is left to decide for themselves what her protest is about.  To my mind her protest is against male violence and control, and  her body is the battleground she chooses for her protest but I suspect there are all sorts of other interpretations you could make. The book has haunted me since I read it and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The translation by Deborah Smith is a thing of beauty. I’m looking forward to reading Han Kang’s most recent book Human Acts which was published at the beginning of the year and has received very good reviews.

IMG_1258

The Night Watch by Patrick Modiano

Next up Patrick Modiano, the French writer  who won The Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. The two I’ve read are Ring Roads and The Night Watch. Neither are easy reads and I have some sympathy with an Amazon reviewer who said of one of them, ‘I didn’t finish this book because I didn’t really understand what he was going on about.’ The ones I read are published by Bloomsbury and the translation seemed to me clunky. It strikes me that the books could have done with a decent introduction contextualizing the books and giving some explanation as to why Modiano won the prize. To read them ‘cold’ is a bit of a baffling experience. Both books are set during the occupation of France during the Second World War. There is a large cast of characters, black marketeers, spivs, prostitutes, spies and undercover policemen. The atmosphere is dog eat dog. To begin with I found them confusing and slightly dull. It’s hard to distinguish one crook from another and there isn’t much plot as such. My best description is of a Virginia Woolf novel mixed up with a bit of Simenon.

IMG_1257

Ring Roads by Patrick Modiano

There were however two moments, one in each book, which stood out. SPOILER ALERT. In Ring Roads a father suddenly attempts to kill his son and from that point the book gets a lot more interesting. In The Night Watch a man is in a house that has been abandoned and dresses up in women’s clothes and make up.

“In a trunk she left behind several dresses from Worth. One night I slipped on the most beautiful among them: a peau-de-soie with imitation tulle and garlands of pink convolvulus. I have never been tempted by transvestisism, but in that moment my situation seemed so hopeless and my loneliness so great that I determined to cheer myself up by putting on some nonsensical act.”

I’ve got another one of his books Missing Person published by Godine and Verbamundi and will give that a go. Maybe the translation is better. Maybe Modiano will grow on me. I hope so. If there’s anyone out there who has read him I’d be interested in any recommendations you might have. Do you think he is a writer who I’m likely to enjoy the more I read him or should I give up now? Do you think you have to be French to fully appreciate him?

REVIEW: GHOST FLIGHT – MEL HEALY

Ghost Flight by Mel Healy

Ghost Flight by Mel Healy

Some people read crime for the plots, others read crime for, well, other reasons. I’m an ‘other reasons’ sort of reader. The most important thing for me is the character of the main protagonist. Am I interested in them? Am I entertained? Do I want to ‘hang out’ with them? Otherwise frankly what is the point? Ghost Flight is the third in the Moss Reid series, figuring the Irish PI based in the Stonybatter area of Dublin. The other two in the series are Another Case in Cowtown and Black Marigolds.

Moss, I am happy to say, is well worth hanging out with. He is amiable, funny, not afflicted with irritating flaws and wouldn’t be seen dead falling asleep in his chair while listening to his old vinyl collection. He likes a pint and hanging out with his friends, Colley and Arnaud and although he loves his food, he is not pretentious about it. An amuse bouche is a ‘gob tickler’ and he’s as happy with ‘a big dirty Ulster fry’ as ‘tellines de camargue‘.  Oh, and he’s got something in common with Doris Day and Whoopi Goldberg. Always a good sign in a man.

This is not to say that Mel Healy is a slouch at putting together an intriguing plot and if plots are your thing you’ll find plenty here to keep you puzzled and entertained. It involves three men going missing in a light aircraft off the west coast of Ireland and then one of them turning up in France six years later. Then a woman goes missing…

The reason I enjoyed this book is because I now know a whole load of things I did not know before including:

  • what Developmental Prosopagnosia is
  • what the dual nationalities of Schrödinger of Schrödinger’s cat fame were
  • how to whip up perfect scrambled eggs
  • how to pick a pin-tumbler (that’s a lock by the way)
  • what tellines are and how to cook them; it involves pink garlic and hazelnuts
  • how to get out of a French police station if I’ve been arrested for not having enough breathalyzers or high vis jackets in my car
  • where the flying sequences of the film The Blue Max were filmed
  • what the origin is of the canker which is affecting the plane trees which line the Canal du Midi …

I could go on but I’m sure you’re getting the idea by now. Ghost Flight is very well written and funny.  This is one of my favourite lines:

You can tell a lot about a man from his shoes: who he is, what he’s like. If eyes are the window to the soul, then shoes are the Velux skylight.

So there’s something for everyone here, including a few good recipes thrown in for free. In fact my feeling is that if Kinky Friedman were Irish he might well turn out to be Mel Healy.

The last paragraph in the book is this:

That’s the trouble with this town; when people say, “I’ve just finished that book,” you never know whether they are talking about reading one or writing one.

I, for one, am hoping that Mel Healy is getting on and writing the next Moss Reid mystery right now.

Finally, I must issue a severe warning: WHATEVER YOU DO, DO NOT READ THIS BOOK WHILE HUNGRY. Otherwise you’ll find yourself listening to a growling stomach, while staring disconsolately into your fridge, wishing for Arnaud, Moss and Colley to turn up at the door in Tintin (read the book to find out what Tintin is) and rustle you up some perfect tellines de camargue.

Mel blogs at http://melhealy.wordpress.com and his blog is as funny, idiosyncratic and eclectic as his books. Oh, and there are recipes…